A traveler passes a quarry and sees three men working. The traveler asks the first man what he is doing and he replies “cutting stone.” The second says “earning money to feed and shelter my family.” When the third man is questioned, he proclaims “I am building a temple.”
This is an old story, a proverbial tale used to teach us something about our human nature. It’s a simple story but it tells us many things including demonstrating different motivations for working and how a slightly different perspective can elevate a “job” into a “meaningful experience.”
The first two answers reflect what we commonly think of as the reasons for working. One, the work simply needs to be done. As a society we have a tacit agreement to share the labor and responsibility of the everyday “tasks” that must be done to keep us fed and clothed, sheltered and safe. We all need stuff but we can’t do everything for ourselves so we’ve created a system to share the burden. Two, being paid money is one of the ways that we “exchange” goods and services, in effect “trade” with each other. Within our daily lives, we are both providers and consumers of goods and services and money is a convenient tool that we have collectively agreed to use as a more practical way than literally trading your apple for a pear, your sheep’s wool for cotton, or your medical services for a paved driveway.
The third answer is the one that I find the most intriguing though, personally and as a business owner – the idea that work provides something intangible as well, a sense of purpose and satisfaction in what we do, in what we accomplish. When we see our individual labor as an integral part of something valuable and useful to our communal society, we feel pride, happiness, contentment; a host of good feelings. We crave the opportunity to do “meaningful” work. We want to build temples, not just cut stone.
Some work is obviously meaningful in our estimation – doctors and fireman save lives, teachers educate our children and judges and lawyers ensure that justice is dispensed according to our laws. But truly, everyone’s work has intrinsic value and contributes to the larger good, thereby being meaningful. The accounting department that ensures the bills are paid at a hospital is contributing to the wellbeing of the patients too. Without school bus drivers there would be no students in the classroom for teachers to teach. A quarry worker is contributing to justice in our country when they help to build the court house. If your company manufactures drugs that save lives then everyone at your company is saving people’s lives through their daily work. Understanding how their individual effort is part of a larger whole shows people how their work is meaningful, even if they don’t automatically see it as such. With the recognition that their work is meaningful, and has a purpose greater than simply a paycheck, comes satisfaction and a measure of happiness.
It’s up to those of us in leadership and management positions to bring this perspective to our employees. Good managers can inspire us and help us to feel proud of the contribution we are making by ensuring that we understand how and why our particular efforts are meaningful. Working in the staffing industry for the past 25 years has brought me great satisfaction, on a daily basis. Seeing how it affects a person’s life to be employed, to find a needed job has convinced me of the importance of our work. I try my best to ensure that all my employees understand how it affects someone to have a job, to be working and earning a living. I try to convey that making a difference in people’s lives in this way is “meaningful work,” that it is a noble cause. Feeling that you are engaged in meaningful work is as important as being paid to do that work. When your whole team feels this way, they work as a more cohesive unit, achieving greater results in a happier work environment. Money isn’t everything when it comes to people being satisfied and happy in their jobs!
The Millennial Generation seems to be most often cited as really concerned with being meaningfully employed but I don’t believe this desire is unique to any age group or demographic. It is human nature that we find both utility and personal satisfaction in our work; that we look to be fulfilled through involvement with something bigger than ourselves. For millennia people have labored because they need to AND because they want to. It is a wonderful feeling to know that your personal efforts make a difference and that your work has meaning and contributes to our society beyond just providing you with a paycheck.
What are you doing to make sure your employees feel this way?
President and CEO